Small Acts

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems, copyright ©1995 by Naomi Shihab Nye.

My spouse says to me after she shares a dilemma she is in the middle of, and I invariably offer what I think of as “helpful” advice, “I appreciate it, but I just need you to be kind… be gentle with me.”    

Kindness, as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us, can be the only thing that makes sense. It is what grounds us, what keeps us going.

When history, when the future is calling us to do huge important things, it may feel like a waste of time to express a small act of kindness.

But don’t be fooled. Small acts of kindness change the world, person by person, one by one. 

They say that Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, at the time far more important than a young Baptist preacher, would receive his late-night phone calls. She would answer when Martin Luther King, Jr. called late at night, when his mind was troubled and he couldn’t sleep. She would answer the phone; she knew who was calling. Perhaps he was feeling that nothing he had yet done was making the big difference he wanted to make.

He would call her, and she would answer and she would sing him to sleep, offering her gift of song as an act of kindness. A small thing to do, yet so big. 

In Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, she shares a story told by the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield.

An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure.

So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would give his sister a pint of blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it.

The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister; the doctor came over to see how he was doing.

The boy opened his eyes and asked, “How soon until I start to die?’” This was not a random act of kindness, but a willingness on the part of this eight-year-old boy to make the ultimate sacrifice for his sister. “How soon until I start to die?”

Most of the time, kindness does not require the ultimate sacrifice, but it does require love, which this little boy obviously possessed.

Those possessed by love know that kindness is their religion. In Buddhism, to practice loving kindness is to makes small acts of kindness a way of life, known as metta.

You may know someone who makes kindness their religion, who practices metta. Someone who is faithfully and reliably kind, someone who has always been kind to you, to everyone they meet.

I have known people like that, and I have benefited from their kindness.

Yet I’d be telling you a falsehood if I claimed kindness as my religion.

Perhaps honesty is my trade.

I could use the excuse that I don’t come from kind people. But that wouldn’t be true. That wouldn’t be honest. Both my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers were very kind. It was my mother who wasn’t. She still isn’t a person one would think of as kind. 

I used to be shocked that she wasn’t. Now I am used to it.

I remember the day when I was a young girl and a kind-looking woman came into our driveway in the Florida suburb where we lived. She seemed to be trying to sell something. As she started her introduction, my mother was rude to her. My mother was in a rush to go somewhere with me in the car. I was startled and embarrassed with how she treated that lady. The lady seemed stunned as well. 

There was a harshness, a dismissal of the other person as if they didn’t deserve kindness.   

I find myself becoming my mother more and more. And it pains me, because I am trying hard to raise kind children, and it is very clear that being harsh only plays out with my children being harsh and rude with each other! 

Shouldn’t it be easy enough to offer a soft, gentle response, if not with family members, with strangers?

For me, I find that more often than not, I pass up or totally miss opportunities to be kind. Instead, I am impatient, full of complaint or sarcasm. 

Not very ministerial, huh? Certainly not kind. 

I try to fool myself, saying that I am being honest, revealing my real feelings, offering my real thoughts.

But that is a cop-out.

It is hard to be kind. I seem to fear that I am going to give up something that I will never get back. Time, or money, or my heart. 

But I have made a commitment to myself to just go with it.   

Why? Perhaps because of the pandemic, perhaps to counter the fanatic fringe that seems to hate me and my kind….

Perhaps because I am so aware of how short and fragile life is.

I find myself asking in the middle of the night, How many more times will I have an opportunity to be kind? How many more times will I allow the chance to perform a small act of kindness pass me by? It pains me to think about what I risk losing. 

What if we all recognized ourselves as bruised, traumatized people, and we began to see that kindness is the only response that makes any sense at all?

What if we committed to the small acts of kindness that would mean we pay close attention to those around us? What if we not only see the small needs going unmet, but we seize the opportunity to respond? One by one, practicing acts of kindness….

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